Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thirst No More!

The formerly bland culinary land of I'On has suddenly become home to of one of Charleston's best new restaurants with the welcome arrival of the impeccable Soif Wine, Cheese & Tapas Bar. Soif, which is the French word for "thirst", simultaneously sates epicurean and oenophile appetites for excellent fare matched with excellent wine.

Sure, we have plenty of that around town (thank goodness!), but Soif delivers the goods with a light, expertly informed service staff, each without an ounce of boorish pretense, and Soif's fair prices don't require taking out a second mortgage. Though Soif is billed as a "bar", its easy, sit-down dining pace and quiet, sophisticated ambiance make it feel more like a restaurant; a heralded one at that.

Soif veritably sparkles with a palpable, edible and drinkable energy of love and happiness which, the clarity of the fabulous food and wine not withstanding, is a big part of what makes dining here pure pleasure, from start to finish. Credit has to go to owner Gail Summars, who picked up and left her Napa vineyard, Haru Ranch, after falling in love with I'On and Charleston. "I just love Charleston. It reminds me of a small San Francisco," exudes Summars. At first, she opened the wine shop, but when the space next door become available, she snapped it up to create the restaurant, thereby fulfilling a "lifelong dream to create a little cafe".

Her matriarchal warmth infuses the dining room and seems to fill her small staff to the brim with ease as they go about their impressive work. She picked them carefully. Grozis had to prepare lunch for Summars in her home using just a microwave and a toaster before he got the Soif chef gig. The general manager was formerly at Cru Cafe and is considering going to school for her sommelier credentials and Soif's head server created the wine list at Meritage before coming on board. Aside from the staff's wealth of experience, "They understand my vision, that's why it works so well," says Summars.

Whatever the behind-the-scene reasons, Soif works. Coral and red hued walls and neat white trim on the tall windows grace Soif with a combination of Californian and international charm. Great attention is shown to details in the crisp, geometrically shaped white plates and delicate glassware. At center stage of the intimate,50-seat restaurant is the closet-sized kitchen where chef Bradley Grozis, formerly at The Osprey Grill at The Sanctuary, works his palatial-sized magic. The classically-charged menu of small and large plates ($5-$12) changes weekly and includes a 5-course chef's selection menu ($35 or $60 with paired wines).

We opted for the versatility and relative frugality of the chef's menu (which we shared at no extra cost), but not before diving into a bowl of Grozis' chunky/smooth duck pate special ($8) infused with confetti-like shreds of roasted onion. Served with briny Lebanese olives and salty, crisp French cornichons, it was unforgettable. The server paired it with a snappy, light Pinot Noir that, like all the pairings we sampled, brought out the best in both the food and wine; waltzing inextricably between the two elements as effortlessly and beguilingly as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The hot soup of the day, a "roasted vegetable puree", arrived shortly thereafter in white demi-tasse cups presented at the center of a chive "X" imposed on square white plates. Steamy and soothing deliciousness, the soup was a frothy blend of mild root vegetables with asparagus and potato overtones. It whet our appetites for the next course, a duo of Mushroom and Goat Cheese Crostini and Poached Pear with Gorgonzola with Mint Crostini. Thin slices of shitake and pear that tasted like they'd been sauteed and poached, respectively, in a light, white wine were arranged on the diagonal atop crispy toasts and garnished with the acid-smooth bite of fresh goat cheese and a mild Gorgonzola. The bites of fresh mint served with the pears was an unusual, refreshing and ultimately winning addition to the plate.

Another unusual combination, parsnip with asparagus and smoked salmon, was a head-turner; mine practically spun off my neck with joy. Grozis roasted a square-shaped spear of sweet parsnip, lining it up with a spear of smoky, grilled asparagus and wrapped it all up with fresh, salmon smoked with the sweetness of Applewood bacon. The kicker was the lightly mounted mustard and red wine cream sauce served with it which brought this dish together like a marriage made in epicurean heaven.

Just when I thought it couldn't get better, our server brought out the seared duck breast fanned across a rectangular plate atop a raspberry gastrique sauce and alongside a golden mound of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Paired with a pert Newton Chardonnay, this was the brightest star of the evening in a dining sky that was already exploding with them and goes down as the best thing I've eaten in 2007 - bar none. The subtly of the sauce, a reduction of raspberry vinegar, perhaps infused with more fresh fruit, and caramelized sugar was majestically subdued; the perfect foil for the meaty, pink and exquisite duck. What else could be better with such carnivorous ambrosia than a cloud of mashed potatoes harboring a wispy fragrance of roasted garlic and creamery butter? Nothing!

Soif's take on a cannoli, this one more of a crepe filled with pistachio imbued cream, mounted and folded with crispy chunks of roasted pistachios, came close. Grozis dressed the plate with a milk chocolate ganache and our server expertly paired it with a Port-Cabernet blend and a rich, sweet Muscat, which the server selected for me since I don't like Port.

Summars has more than met her expectations to create a great little neighborhood cafe serving great food, aritisanal cheeses, and a great selection of California and international wines. In just three months, she and her stellar staff have surpassed all of them and entered the realm of excellence on all fronts. One can only forecast a very bright future for Charleston's latest restaurant star.

Soif Wine, Cheese & Tapas Bar
357 North Shelmore, Mount Pleasant
(843) 884-2707
Tues.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. - until
(Note: Wine shop next door is open during the restaurant's hours of operation. Patrons can select bottles at the shop to be opened in the restaurant for a $10 corkage fee.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mo' Moe's is Better Than One

Sometimes, you really can't get enough of a good thing - especially when fate seems to be knocking on your door. So, when Mike Tronoski, decade-long owner of the wildly successful Moe's Crosstown Tavern (named by Esquire Magazine as one of the "Top 50 Bars in America) got the calling to "grow" Moe's, grow he did.

The calling came in the form of a realtor who told Tronoski that Jimmy Dengate's, a popular Irish pub on Cumberland Street, downtown, was up for sale. Since Dengate's original location was at the same address as Moe's Crosstown, Tronoski couldn't ignore the strong "fate" connection. The potential of the downtown location for attracting college students and business lunch crowds and the fact that he was able to purchase the property (as opposed to the lease he carries for Moe's Crosstown) didn't hurt, and soon, Moe's Downtown Tavern was born.

The new restaurant opened in September. In many ways, the new Moe's mirrors the original. The menu is the same, the chef (Shawn Eustace) is the same, and the unbeatable burgers taste just as lip-smacking good below the Crosstown as they do above it. But, the look and the soul of the place feel somehow different. The new location doesn't have the mildly rough 'n tumble, softened, neighborhood-warmed edges of its older restaurant sibling, but, rather gives the impression of a polished, high-tech sports bar. High definition, plasma televisions broadcast assorted games off all four walls, that were otherwise scantily clad. Still, the warm, brick-red paint, brick, custom built, high-walled booths, smart looking, mirror-backed bar and easy access parking bring it all together with decidedly urban appeal.

The crowd was eclectic on a Sunday afternoon; pregnant with pro football games that were being played out (or pre-played out) on every single television in the place. Mostly twenty-somethings sat alongside the occasional senior citizen couple, all seemingly enjoying themselves while diving into Moe's gigantically portioned sandwiches and sipping suds from their chilled mugs. Beer drinkers' choices are plentiful here; less so for wine. Only one Chardonnay was offered, and to use the descriptive term of our incredibly frank and efficient server, it was "mediocre". On tap, however, are 14 draft beers, including one high gravity beer with two more coming soon and there are over 20 bottles to choose from.

Far from a simple burger joint, Moe's Downtown throws gourmet passes left and right in peppery flavor combo's like a goat cheese and roasted poblano pepper burger and a blackened burger topped with crumbled blue cheese and a Cajun-inspired roasted red pepper aioli that packs some serious, house made heat doused with the acidic edge of fresh lime juice. Ranging in price from $6.75-$7.25, Moe's specialty burgers are hand-prepped, 8 ounce patties of ground Angus chuck beef that can be served with real, hand cut fries, chips, and pasta salad or for a $1.50 extra, fat, sweet onion rings (well worth the indulgence!), beans and rice or a side salad.

The sinewy Philly Cheesesteak ($7.50) on a soggy, tough bun, wasn't a winner in my book, especially after sampling the sinful burgers. However, Moe's wings (1 dozen, $6.75) kept me happily aloft for several hours after devouring them. The signature Buffalo flavorings were entirely on the mark - a flash of heat followed by the tanginess of vinegar. The wings were moist throughout and crunchy, crisp on the outside. There are several flavors to choose from in varying degrees of heat including mild, hot and "Moe Hotter".

So much more than a watering hole offering garden variety bar grub, Moe's takes it several steps further by throwing in an Eastern European ethnicity menu curve. In a nod to his father's "completely" Polish family, Tronoski offers Poland's potato and pasta darlings, pierogies ($6.95) and a Polish Keilbasy sub ($6.50) served with sauerkraut or sauteed pepper and onions. Since pierogies are prohibitively labor intensive to prepare in-house, he orders his from his friend and fellow Polish descendant, Ted Dombroski of Ted's Butcherblock located up the street on East Bay. Dombroski gets his from a trusted supplier in New Jersey.

Back in Moe's kitchen, they're fried (as opposed to the more traditional saute or poach method) and served with a dipping sauce of cream cheese, sour cream and fresh chives. The "quick fry" gave the pasta added chew and an interesting texture dimension. The fluffy potato puree filling was mildly seasoned, both sweet and savory. I'd like to see the pierogies poached first, to soften them up a bit more, then fried for the crunchy finish, but they're a fine addition to a menu in a town that is otherwise completely lacking in Polish food offerings.

Moe's winning formula is sure to shine just as brightly downtown as it has for nearly 10 years uptown, proving that two Moe's are better than one. Look for Moe's legendary 1/2 price Tuesday night burger tradition to kick into permanent gear at the new restaurant starting in January.

Moe's Downtown Tavern
5 Cumberland Street, Downtown
(843) 577-8500
Open daily, 11 - 2 a.m.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Circumstantial Roadside Find

Ravenous travelers along the sparsely populated restaurant stretch of Highway 17 between Beaufort and Charleston have an appealing new option to stop and satisfy grumbling bellies.

Its uncomplicated name, Edisto Restaurant, matches its basic steak and fried seafood menu, spartan decor and friendly, countrified service. There is nothing basic, however, about the restaurant's menu mainstays: fried seafood and steaks. The new husband and wife owner team (he doubles as chef and hails from The Sunset Grill on Edisto Beach), spare no expense on top-shelf cuts of Midwestern, grain-fed beef and fresh-off-the-boat seafood, which is predominantly from local waters. So, for the most part, I didn't take exception to the almost-downtown entree prices, which lurk around $20.

But, there was one grating problem here that raised the ire of both my palate and my pocketbook. It came in the form of shoddy culinary technique and budgetary shortcuts in a sauce and vinaigrette that were, frankly, heinous enough to be permanently shelved or in dire need of marked improvement. Truly, why pair an exceptional, deftly seasoned and perfectly fried hush puppy with a had-to-be-faux hollandaise that had the texture of moistened sawdust and an acrid, medicinal tarragon aftertaste? Or serve a doctored-up Italian vinaigrette that tasted like it came out of a bottle but was billed as "house made"? It defied logic while kicking the perceived value of an otherwise precious place into a truculent taste tailspin. This element, if and until it changes, modestly dampens my desire to make a 30-mile trek for more of the same.

For now, if I happened to be hungry and in the hood, Edisto Restaurant would be my first pick to satiate my seemingly ever-present craving for excellent fried scallops (or any fried seafood!), an ache I feared might never again be sated with the unfortunate demise of my former fave fried seafood hot spots - The Anchor Line and Tidewater Grill. Fortunately, Edisto Restaurant has arrived to fill a much needed void in this arena.

The restaurant also throws out a healthy and heartwarming dose of homespun congeniality - the kind rarely seen in our increasingly impersonal and speedy world. Our server was the picture of endearment, answering questions with monk-like honesty and engaging, when appropriate, in pleasant banter. Equally remarkable was the restaurant's utter cleanliness. There was not a speck of dust or misplaced crumb to be found and the air smelled as fresh and clean as a forest in fall. Amazing, given the amount of fried seafood platters and grilled steaks that hog the menu's abbreviated real estate.

Vegetarians may feel a bit out of their element in this practically vegetable-free (save a half-frozen salad, soggy cole slaw or one of three types of potato preparations) environment, but carnivores and seafood fans will be in seventh heaven, indeed. Entree portions are gargantuan, which packs on even more added value and probably are responsible for the added pound I'm sensing I'm lugging about this morning. The cup of chunky, roe-rich crab soup ($3.95), redolent with butter, cream and a kiss of sherry sweetness, probably has something to do with it, as well.

The rib eye, a beautifully aged piece of moist beef, marbled magnificently with just the right amount of fat, rivaled any I've had downtown or anywhere, at least in a long time. Chef Vickery mastered the seasoning and temperature of the steak like a pro. Paired with the restaurant's signature stuffed potato, pregnant with baked flesh that was folded with what seemed like a pound of cheese, sour cream and butter, was a royal indulgence. The fried seafood combo of scallops and flounder, both sweet, milky and lightly battered, was another source of pure joy, peppered with the added pleasure of an ample supply of the restaurant's stellar hush puppies. Our server was kind enough to throw a few fried oysters into the mix, and they, too proved to be examples of the best our local waters has to offer, fried with skill of a true Lowcountry fry master.

Stuffed to the gills, we opted to pass on the dessert choices (key lime pie, brownie a la mode, and ice cream) since our server told us they were not house made nor was she aware of where they were prepared.

The restaurant is housed in the original location of the legendary Toomers Place, where I'm told folks would line up in days past for shad roe and other Lowcountry gems. The little, white roadside bungalow that is Edisto Restaurant offers some big and tasty reasons to visit and with some little improvements by the new owners, may very well one day join Toomers Place ranks as a place to visit from near and far. For now, stop by when the circumstances are right - you're nearby, hungry for big servings of great seafood and beef, and ready to be treated with kindness and care.

Edisto Restaurant
19804 Highway 17, Jacksonboro
(843) 893-3663
Mon.-Tues., 5 - 9 p.m., Thus.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Moroccan Magic on Maybank

Cinnamon, spice and just about everything nice are on the menu at Le Club Fez, a recently opened French Moroccan restaurant near the Terrace Theatre on James Island.

"Fez" is one of the best examples of the advantages of living in a vital, diverse and growing town like Charleston. Once a bastion of primarily Lowcountry and soul food restaurants, in just a little under a decade, Charleston has morphed into a culturally diverse dining mecca where tagines and tapas dance just as beautifully as shrimp and grits on our collective dining "carte".

Hearty thanks go to Fez consultant David Leboutillier and operating partner Craig Nelson who spent months transforming the beyond-bland landscapes of Cynthia's and Lulu's that once occupied this space into the plush red carpet of exotic flavors and ancient culture that is Morocco and its oldest imperial city - Fez.

Chef Bryan Lyndsay's classical French training shines on both sides of the Mediterranean in the two sections of the menu; French and Moroccan. The merger is logical based on France's long colonial presence in the African country and is deftly executed at Fez by Lyndsay and his kitchen team . Many preparations, such as the resoundingly delicious olives and mussels, can be served either a la "Francais" or "Moroccais" and French bistro classics like cassoulet and confit du canard somehow seem just right simmering in the shadow of Fez's towering clay tagines - a hallmark of Moroccan fare.

The olfactory senses explode upon entering the crimson den that is softened with blood-red curtains and hushed lighting streaming through gorgeous lamps that hang like glowing orbs from a padded ceiling.

Cinnamon, orange, cumin, cardamom, saffron, turmeric, and more wafted through my nostrils and into my soul setting the stage for what proved to be a sumptuous and rewarding feast for which I will return again and again - especially at these prices. Tagines that can easily feed two range from a meager $16-$18 and the French "plats principaux" run from $16-$23. Fez includes an abbreviated sandwich selection ($7.25-$8) for the Terrace theatre crowd or late night world of James Island looking for a light bite to put a tasty close to its nocturnal cravings.

Early, late, or any time of day you can get your hands on them, the olives Moroccais are an irresistible indulgence redolent with the exoticism of Morocco's splendid spice palette. The olives spend a long time bathing in a marinade to acquire a softened plumpness and an earthy spice aroma that leans heavily and most deliciously towards cinnamon, orange and more. The B'stilla starter (or petits plat) is another cinnamon delight, this one layered in phyllo dough and stuffed with chunky, roasted whole almonds and mercilessly delicious bites of juicy, rich chicken.

As tempting as they sounded in their French deliciousness, cassoulet and other classic French dishes were not enough to keep us straying from the tagine track. Both the lamb and beef tagines were the stuff of Moroccan heaven, performing a rocking Moroccan belly dance between restrained subtly peppered with the fragrant girth of braised dry fruits like figs, apricots and raisins. Again, cinnamon ruled the roost, but it seemed to gain a quiet momentum like a chorus to a Mozart masterpiece, building and building until a crescendo, forcing a mutual desire to clear our plates like greedy princes at a casbah.

The tagines come with a trio of "seasonal accompaniments" or what is billed on the appetizer menu as a "petit salad Moroccais". We received a melange of vegetable wonders; standouts included the strangely tart/sweet and absolutely fabulous swirl of spaghetti squash and subdued, roasted whole beets. Remember folks, this comes with the meal!

Desserts, all $5.25, didn't quite stand up to the tagines, but were not far off. A flaky pillow of crushed almonds and cinnamon wrapped in pastry was exceptional, if a bit chewy in spots. Fez's cool, creamy creme brulee gets brushed with orange blossom water and an extra fine layer of browned sugar.

In all of its lusciousness, Fez is certainly a breath of fresh air upon the Charleston dining scene. Service was sincerely invested in the needs of its staff, if a bit green here and there. In the end, food got to the right person at the right time and with a smile and the intention to please. So, that's what really counts. Hopefully, the staff will up the ante on its familiarity with the menu and its preparations as time marches on.

All culinary compasses point to Fez. Put it on your destination list. It's a trip you'll be happy you made.

Le Club Fez Francais et Moroccais
1956A Maybank Highway, James Island
(843) 406-2767
Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.- 2 a.m.
Web site under development. The imminent address will be:

Monday, October 29, 2007

Buzzy and Co. Breathe New Life Into Old "Med" Tradition

A former boss of mine, who possessed exceptional business acumen, was fond of the expression "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." While the phase grated against my grammatically sensitive ears, it rang true in the relatively remote corners of my logical mind.

Buzzy Newton, Chairman of The Board of Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company, and his wife, Rebecca Newton, clearly subscribe to the same theory. The 10 week-old co-owners of a decade's old West Ashley restaurant mainstay, began with maintaining their new restaurant's most recent moniker: Med Bistro. Even though most everyone thinks of it and even refers to it as its original name, Med Deli, Rebecca says "we wanted to leave it alone".

Along with the name, they sagely kept broadly under-touted and gifted chef Todd Garrigan and maintain a strong focus on local artists and musicians by displaying their talents on the walls (100% of profits go to the artists) and in the restaurant in the form of live music performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and during Sunday brunch.

Rebecca took a proactive stance in streamlining the restaurant's popular Bohemian look by enlisting the services of a local designer to select new, mustard colored paint for the walls and to strategically "position" the paintings for maximum eye appeal. The look, further enhanced by strings of twinkling white lights and a long bar adorned with sleek black chairs, is better than ever.

Under the Newton's stewardship, the relaxed fun of paper-lined tables (and requisite crayons for drawing) have returned, and the spotty service this restaurant's patrons have been burdened with for years has been replaced with a bubbly, energetic, well-synchronized team of professionals that work in tandem with the kitchen to deliver food on time and with a smile. The mettlesome, bad-service gnat that once settled heavily enough on my aching dining shoulders to to make me avoid the place altogether, is officially dead.

Ding, dong! Like Dorothy and her eclectic entourage after the Wicked Witch's melting demise, we rejoiced in Med Bistro's nurturing service rebirth. The well-groomed service team, dressed neatly and simply in black uniforms and armed with knowledge, oozed with positive energy and a desire and ability to please. Our server didn't miss a beat until the end of our lunch experience when we were required to wait too long for the bill. Because the full lunch surge was beginning to retreat and, consequently, many tabs were likely being calculated all at once, this was excusable. Still, it's an area where the Newton's and their staff may want to pay additional attention, especially for the working business lunch crowd.

Garrigan's maintained the winning, deli-intensive lunch menu of cold, deli-style sandwiches, soups (including the tasty, signature black bean soup), salads, grilled sandwiches, pockets, wraps and quesadillas, but has really beefed up the dinner menu with sophisticated bistro style fare from Cashew and Pistachio Crusted Salmon ($16.95) to the Center Cut Pork Chop served with Au Gratin Potatoes, Thin Beans & Apple Butter ($18.95). This expansion gives Med Bistro an evening breadth its never before experienced and gives Garrigan, a chance to "do his thing," according to Buzzy.

One thing you can't get after sundown, however, are the house chips ($4.95). They, in all of their proud calorie counter defiance, provide at least one outstanding reason to visit Med Bistro for lunch. The chips were prepared from wafer thin slices of Russet potatoes that were fried at perfect temperature for optimal crispiness. The chef crafts a bechamel-based sauce, whisked together with a mildly sweet blue cheese (my money says Roquefort) and generously spoons it over the entire platter of chips. I was concerned the offering might be or become soggy quickly unless the sauce was served on the side, but the server said, laughing, that it's not usually a problem because "everyone always eats them so quickly". Count me among the guilty.

Other good reasons to come are the fat, Grilled Reuben ($8.95) and Med Grill ($8.95) sandwiches. Both are literally stacked with inches of deli-grade meats and sweet/pungent kraut and slaw, respectively. They towered with excellence and heady, old-school indulgence that recalled the classic corner deli's in Manhattan. Grill sandwiches (and there are 15 to choose from!) can be served with a choice of several sides or, if you really want to go the distance, try Med Bistro's onion rings from heaven for a paltry, additional $0.95. Go for it! Life is way too short to miss this treat. They looked and tasted hand-battered (a rarity anywhere, anymore) and were sweet and smooth in the center and hot and crunchy on the outside.

Even though the days of buying wine by the bottle from a separate retail area, to be enjoyed in-house for a minor $1 corkage fee are over, the restaurant boasts a sophisticated domestic and imported beer list as well as a creative and surprisingly expansive wine list ($20-$62 by the bottle) for what is still, happily, a home time dining experience.

The Newton's prove that old restaurants can be tweaked and updated without losing their soul. Med Bistro's an enduring example.

Med Bistro

90 Folly Road, South Windermere Plaza, West Ashley

(843) 766-0323

Website under development.

Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Lunch served until 5 p.m., Dinner from 5 -10 p.m.)

Sun. brunch, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Arlaana's Not Yet Nirvana

Daniel Island is just crying for something Arlaana, a year old tapas-style bistro offering "world cuisine," is clearly trying to deliver but hasn't quite gotten there. At least not yet.

The stand-alone island community, once spearheaded by Bishop England, the Family Circle Cup stadium, and a few widely scattered homes, has morphed into a bustling Mayberry-esque town, filled with working professionals and young families. It now has all the trademarks of a real town, complete with its own grocery store, ice cream shop and nail salon, but what it doesn't have is a mid-range priced restaurant that beckons with I've-got-a-must-have-craving-to-go-eat-at-XYZ-restaurant-tonight-honey allure.

Arlaana's probably the closest, but with prices approaching some of downtown's best (and closest DI competitor, Sienna), it needs to come up with more compelling food preparations, more even service, and perhaps tone down its deep purple and orange Alice-on-Acid color scheme and flickering Christmas tree-hued, fiber optically programmed wall sconces. Once accomplished, Arlaana's would be transformed into it a restaurant tour de force that beckons the DI masses, and those from elsewhere, with irresistible charm.

Still, despite its occasional flawed moment, Arlaana offers a most pleasant dining experience, peppered with a surprise pop of excellence in some dishes, a grown-up wine list, and sincere, friendly service. Somehow it all comes together with the exuberant warmth and maternal energy of owner (along with her husband Chuck) Aarlana Black, who floated about the mid-size dining room and through its gossamer curtain panels the evening we visited like an inviting, polished hostess at a private dinner party.

The exhaustive menu, comprised for the most part of "large" and "small plates" ($4.95-$24.95) and house made flat bread pizzas, soups and salads ($5.50-$9.50), literally traverses the cuisines of the globe, with an emphasis on France, Italy, Asia, American and Southern classics. The cheese tour ($17), a plate of Saint Nectaire, Gorgonzola, and Cambozola cheeses with assorted garnishes, was representative of the best and worst of Arlaana.

While the plate was attractive, there was too much going on visually (like the space itself), and while the creamy, tangy Cambozola paired with luscious honey and an edible bowl of preserved lemon was ultimate perfection, the cloying blackberry-balsamic "jelly" (really more of a sauce) paired with the mild, musty Saint Nectaire was a miss. The Gorgonzola paired with toasted pine nuts and basil and a pile of bland, pickled garlic fell somewhere in between. Kudos to the server, however, for selecting a snappy, well-chilled Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc ($36, bottle - wine is half-price on all bottles on Tuesday evenings) that was served with professional aplomb.

He was accompanied all evening by a friendly factotum in-training. Though she bumbled her one solo service gig (she delivered the wrong entree orders to the wrong guests), it was the gaping time gap (approximately 40 minutes) between the appetizer course and entrees that was the most problematic and the most curious, since there were only 8 diners in the entire restaurant. When they finally did arrive, the Pan Seared Filet Mignon ($16) and Duck Confit ($10) were both lovely. They shone brightest in the sauce department, with spot-on reduction sauce renditions of a an earthy, shallot confit demi-glace and a Grand Marnier demi-glace, respectively. Too bad the "pommes frittes" (oops - that should have read "frites" on the menu) were limp, half-cooked, and thus, not worthy of consumption.

Inconsistencies and an underlying sense of rushed sloppiness that likely led to the multiple typos on the menu and the occasional flaws in the overall dining experience at Arlaana, bring it down from a potentially huge DI restaurant high. Because of the palpable love and passion emitted by the owner and her staff for their work and their customers and because of the locals' desire for all that Arlaana could be, I have a feeling it will get there and I, for one, hope it does.


259 Seven Farms Drive, Daniel Island

(843) 471-2400

Tues.-Fri., 11:30 am.-2 p.m.

Tues. - Sat., 5 p.m.-until

Sun. Brunch, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Formula 1 Fare

The reigning king and queen of Charleston restaurant conceptualization have done it again.

Tim Mink and Karalee Nielsen of Rev Foods, which previously and deliciously brought us Poe's Tavern, Raval and Taco Boy, have once again merged their minds and Rev's exceptional talent pool to deliver just the right product, at just the right time, in just the right place and in just the right way. The uncannily on-the-mark result this time around the local restaurant fast track is called Monza. It proves to be a delectably edible ode to the justifiably celebrated Italian racetrack (by the same name) and the even more justifiably celebrated food that fuels Italian appetites - Neapolitan style pizza.

Co-owned by Mink and Nielsen and situated next door to its older, but fresh-as-ever restaurant sister, Raval, Monza is arguably the Ferrari of Rev's impeccable restaurant pack. Or, maybe it just seems that way because Charleston has been in dire need of Grand Prix-grade Neapolitan pizza for a long, long time. While The Holy City is rich in the likes of fat, juicy burgers (a la Poe's), tasty Mediterranean style tapas (a la Raval) and ample Mexican goodness (a la Taco Boy), it was entirely lacking servings of Neapolitan pizza's subtle, sublime goodness hallmarked by a slim, chewy, and airy crust and deftly appointed, quality toppings. Monza's delivers the added value of serving up the best pizza pies in town in a sleek, happening (and entirely spotless, by the way) setting.

The heat's on in Monza's kitchen, to the tune of 1,000 degrees in its eternal wood-burning oven. Oak is the wood of choice that drives the flavor and high heat behind the phenomenal texture and taste of Monza's pizza dough. An instant puff in the oven ( just under 90 seconds for each pie) made with dough prepared with imported ingredients including San Felice wheat flour, Neapolitan yeast, and filtered, ph balanced water, kneaded tenderly together by a mixer from Naples, makes for remarkable crust after crust.

And, Monza doesn't create the common small crime that its closest competitors are sometimes prone to - the dreaded sauce and topping pizza overload that leads to soupy, muddled and hard-to-eat pizza. The kitchen maintains idyllic restraint on quantity to maintain lightness, while doling out quality toppings in spades. Each pizza is topped with, among other things, milky, fiore di latte mozzarella and fresh, local produce and meats/seafood. In order to stay true to their Neapolitan mission, Monza does not allow ANY one to vary off course from the existing menu and says no to ALL substitutions.

All eight pizza choices ($9-$12) bear the names of racing greats from Alberto Ciccio Ascari to Emilio Materassi. You can read their brief bio's on the menu or glance at one of the many black and white photos that grace Monza's chic walls during your brief wait for what's sure to be a memorable pizza experience. Mine was! The "Ciccio" ($12) is Monza's version of a four-cheese or white pizza and came gingerly dressed with a bubbling blend of mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino and parmesan cheese and a heady perfume of garlic-infused olive oil. Talk about uncommonly good - it met its match in the "Fangio" ($12). This was a sweet/hot hit prepared with mozzarella, housemade sausage, roasted local hot peppers, a thin layer of a peppery tomato sauce, onions and garlic, too.

While you're munching on the pizza, don't miss an opportunity to soak up the playful, tasteful decor of tangerine colored rectangular glass tiles and hand-crafted zebra wood tables and booths. The shiny, white, aluminum Navy chairs look imposing at first, but have curved seats that are comfortably accommodating and really complete the neat look of the place. The mostly female service staff was dressed in prim, Euro-style black dresses cinched curtly at the waist with black aprons. Our waitress was eager to inform and to please and, as an extra special bonus, admitted when she didn't know an answer to a question, then scurried off to find it.

With pizza this good, appetizers might seem like an afterthought, but don't make that mistake. The clams casino ($6) feature sweet, local clams topped with butter and wine-prepped bread crumbs peppered with a delicate confetti of pancetta and red peppers. They don't get better than this. Neither does Monza's Italian version of southern shrimp and grits. A special for the evening ($8), it was laced with plump, absolutely local shrimp cooked to opaque perfection and swimming in a sausage-pregnant tomato gravy on top of a creamy, smooth pool of finely-ground polenta. Like the restaurant, the wine list, too, is well-thought out, well-priced and well-done.

Even though Monza delivers the real Neapolitan pizza deal, it only does so in-house. So, go, eat, drink and be merry. Monza's offers some of the freshest reasons to do so that I've come across in a while.


451 King Street, downtown

(843) 720-8787

Open daily, 11 a.m.-until

(Website under development)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Passport Not Required

It's easy to miss, but fans of bona fide Cuban fare will not want to lose an opportunity to revel in El Bohio's simple yet tasty delights. And, unlike American-to-Cuban commerce on the island nation, it's legal here and doesn't require travel or a pesky passport. What more can you ask for?

Except for a more prominent sign indicating its unassuming presence (look on the other side of the road as you're approaching The Terrace theatre shopping center on Maybank Highway), El Bohio is lacking for absolutely nothing. The food is modestly priced (entrees range from $4.50 to $10.50) and packed with the plantain and black-bean flavors of Cuba, service is pleasant (though sometimes slow), and the humble, beachy mood of the place works in spot-on tandem with the entirely happy El Bohio experience.

Considering that it was the brainchild of a first generation Cuban-American, raised on the kitchen creations of her Cuban parents in Cuban-cultured Miami, this should really come as no surprise. Owner Vanessa Luis Harris, a Johnson and Wales University grad, and her husband Alex state her story and their mission on the back of the single-page, laminated menu: "We chose (the name) El Bohio (pronounced El Bo-ee-oo) because it translates to a simple, humble, peasant home with sand floors and thatched roofing. I want to serve you foods that (are) eaten in these traditional Cuban homes."

Except for its sand-free floors, El Bohio accomplishes all this and more, right down to the semi-circle thatched roofs that decorate the diminutive space and the cigar boxes on every table where they do creative double-time as condiment and salt and pepper shaker containers. An antique oak bar is the fanciest thing about the place, but rather than "jumping out" it seems right at home and makes for a perfect perch to dig into one of the restaurant's fine sandwiches - which happen to be prepared with dough that's purchased from a Cuban bakery in Miami and baked on the premises - and a cold brew. It's so incredibly Cuban and deliciously homey, it's easy to believe that even Fidel himself would give El Bohio his stamp of approval.

I most certainly do, and though I like everything about the place, I'm especially fond of the endearing little Papas Rellenes ($3.50) which sounds infinitely less sexy in English, a language which ineptly deems them "Beef Stuffed Potato Balls". Like luck, they come in three's, but are so fabulously palatable I was yearning for easily five times that amount. An appetizer of the highest order, the potato balls are formed with real (no powdered variety here), fluffy mashed potatoes with a spicy, ground beef and gravy center. They're enveloped with a crunchy, breadcrumb coating, deep fried and served with El Bohio's ubiquitous dipping sauce which has a glorious, garlicky kick rounded out with oil and a splash of vinegar and a hit of lime.

The sandwiches are some of the best I've sampled in Charleston - bar none. That's due in large part to the superb bread and the superb fillings, the heart and soul of any exceptional sandwich. Pork and turkey fillings are real (again!) not the processed and pressed versions that are rampant in even the least suspected places, and roasted, with love, in-house. The Cuban sandwich ($6.75) and Medio Dia ("Mid-day", $6.75) were edible testimonies to Cuban goodness, both punctuated with salty pickles and pungent mustard and more of that that fabulous dipping sauce which is appropriately called the "house mojo".

Sandwiches come with a bevy of side choices including black beans, sweet or savory plantains, rice, a tomato and onion salad and, of course, French fries. Scratch the latter alternative, which you can get anywhere, and opt for the satisfying, firm-yet-yielding goodness of the black beans, splashed with a lime and sauteed onion background or bite into a crunchy, starchy savory plantain chip.

If a tastier, more pleasant prelude or chaser to a viewing of an artsy, Indie-type film across the street at The Terrace exists, I don't know of it. But, then, El Bohio provides plenty of reasons to stop by any old time the mood for good food and a good time strikes.

El Bohio
1977 Maybank Highway, James Island
Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sat., noon- 9 p.m.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Different Kind of Cake

A single crepe is a thing of beauty. But, take 20 silky crepes, layered with whisper-thin cushions of flavored pastry cream and whipped cream, and you arrive at something extra special. Jack and Rachel Byrne of Charleston Crepe Company have done just that. Their 9" wide towering confections come in three flavors; vanilla, chocolate and mocha cream. Each yummy, hand-crafted cake serves 10-12 persons at $50 a pop, or an easy $5 or less per yummy, fat slice .

Each and every concoction maintains a perfect balance of smooth, flavored pastry cream and fluffy whipped cream - both lovingly folded into pure decadence of edible delight. The cakes come topped with a thin, crunchy bite of caramelized sugar for a mild "brulee effect" for idyllic texture contrast. The flavor is incredibly delicate - reminiscent of a cream puff - and the lightness of the cakes is exceptional.

Potential true show-stoppers at a wedding, tea, or for a crowd pleasing dessert just about any time or place, Charleston Crepe Company's crepe cakes can be ordered by calling Rachel or Jack at (843) 573-3458. Visit for more information.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Fiery Pig with Lip-Smacking Pluck

Already one year old,Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ is without question the freshest and most memorable addition to Charleston's surprisingly scant barbecue scene. This rough and tumble shack of a place, born of a space that was formerly a circa 1940's gas station, was fabulously re-crafted by Chastain Construction.

It resembles a country shack walled with ruffled metal that seems to whisper the impossibly tasty, time-worn traditions of southern barbecue. With a young and varied crowd and a heavy propensity towards live blues and bluegrass performed by groups with colorful names like Creech Holler and Southern Bitch, Ron's feels more city slicker than country bumpkin.

You won't likely find this type of citified bad boy up in Pee Dee country, but the ribs and the barbecue are the real deal. They're slow smoked in a state-of-the-art slow smoker that the staff seems to revere as the maternal heart and soul of the joint. She's even got a name - Bertha.

Chef/owner Aaron Siegel courageously hung up his downtown toque at significantly fancier Blossom restaurant to make a pass at the barbecue pit and succeed he has! The lingering scent of smoke and pork weaves through your nostrils just as you're getting ready to bite into the succulent ribs, deftly rubbed with an exotic blend of spices that deliver multiple after-shocks of smoke, heat and layered flavor long after they're savored. Snappy, vinegar and mustard based house-made sauces and a slew of succulent side selections (do NOT miss the collards) round out the mammoth platters ($6.95-$21.95, each served with 2 sides). Lighter bites can be found in soups, wraps and salads.

Food is served cafeteria style through a service line that usually moves at a clip, but service can feel a bit disjointed and bumpy when busy, especially during the very popular weekday lunch hour. Your yummy piggy feast can be eaten in house or picked up "to go".

Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ
1205 Ashley River Road
West Ashley
(843) 225-7427/(843) 225-2278
Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (Food served until 9 p.m.)
Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. (Food served until 9 p.m.)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Uni's Noodle's All Wet

Show me someone who says they don't like noodles (and that includes the increasingly persistent and persnickety carb-phobe populous) and I'll show you either a liar or a human anomaly.

Noodles, by nearly any one's measure, are the consummate comfort food. Toss 'em in a bowl with a yummy broth and you've got a steaming meal of simple satisfaction. Practically anybody can make them well (remember good old Ramen from college days?) and the noodle cultures of the world (Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese,Italian, etc.) are justifiably renowned for doing them superbly well.

Sadly, Uni Bar Sake and Noodle House resides in neither camp. This Avondale hopeful, and recent reincarnation of the much loved Marie Laveau's, is uniformly poor, with a couple of very dimly lit bright spots in both service and ambiance. The highlights were definitely not in the noodles. In both instances (bean thread and lo mein), the noodles were a messy melange of over-cooked mush. They effortlessly concaved, even with the gentlest prods from our chopsticks, into the boring abyss of floury, flavorless sauces in the Green Curry ($7.50) and Thai Peanut ($8.50) "House Noodles" preparations.

This is sad for a few reasons. The first has already been named - cooking noodles (not necessarily sauces) is simple. Most can be prepped ahead, bathed for a flash in boiling, salted water and served to perfection. Secondly, a noodle house with a sake bar in a fun, funky neighborhood is a great concept and one that Charleston sorely needs. And, lastly, being a noodle lover, I wanted it to be great, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

What Uni lacks in crisp culinary execution, it more than makes up for in concept. The previously campy/country, hen-pecked Laveau's has been pared down to a streamlined Asian combination of merry, Koi-drenched murals and sleek, black and white lacquered chairs. Votive candles flirted with the approaching dusk as an unusually eclectic mix of dinners hummed with hushed conversation while sipping their "saketini's" from Uni's myriad of sake and sake-blend choices. The kitchen is open, but intruded neither with profuse fumes, smoke or noise and the general mood was appropriately Bohemian for this decidedly Bohemian nook of Avondale . All of this should appeal broadly to Charleston's growing brood of the hip and the happening.

Our server ambled along affably like a somewhat clumsy bear armed with fairly limited knowledge of the menu and deadpan, honest statements like "I like the fish balls. They're good."
Not entirely sold by his description, we opted for spring rolls ($6) and vegetable tempura ($6) to start - which proved to be the edible highlights of the evening. They both arrived at warp speed that made my head virtually spin, and were served too cold and very hot, respectively. The tempura cloak on the zucchini spears and snowball-sized cauliflower chunks was thick and cloying with the round, fatty mouth-feel of a mildly tired vat of frying oil. The bland trio of dipping sauces did little to cut through the flat flavor, but the crunchy texture had real appeal. The spring rolls were forgettable. The sweet heat of green curry was completely absent in the aforementioned noodle fiasco, but I took some comfort in the fresh and abundant bites of broccoli served with it.

Uni has oodles of noodles potential - and more. For the sake of noodle lovers everywhere, let's hope they jump on the clean-up-the-act-in-the-kitchen bandwagon soon.

Uni Bar
9 Magnolia Road
Charleston, SC
(843) 766-7837
Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. (Bar open until 2)
Sun., 4 p.m.-1 a.m. (Bar open until 2)

Friday, August 3, 2007

Do That To Me One More Time

Uno Mas (meaning "one more" in Spanish) is the latest tempting card in local entrepreneur Sal Parco's mini-dynasty restaurant hand, which also successfully holds The Mustard Seed(s), Boulevard Diner, Village Bakery, Long Point Grill and Sette.

It's a snappy take on Mexican fare and puts CIA grad and executive chef (formerly of The Boathouse and Mustard Seed) Jason Ulak's personal penchant for all things Mexican and spicy to mostly palatable good use. Ulak spent some time working with Yucatan Peninsula native Dudley Neito at his Chicago restaurant ( Xel-Ha) to hone Yucatan-inspired cuisine before creating Uno Mas' menu, which includes exotic, whimsical backdrops like verdant, slow- cooked banana leaves and assorted flavors of guacamole that are "hand crushed" to order.

The spacious restaurant is peppered with old-world Mexican detail in curvaceous wrought-iron and antiqued wooden double doors and is more colorful and festive than a pinata. It bursts with nearly every exaggerated hue of the rainbow, yet comes together with subdued, South- of-the- border panache. Diners have the opportunity to view the lively kitchen through large, glass windows. It was abuzz with a blur of activity on the packed-house evening I visited. The service staff was efficient and friendly, though still a bit green around the edges, particularly when it came to limited knowledge about certain dishes and occasional awkward timing.

Ulak presents an ambitious and fully-loaded menu, rife with tortas, "re-grooved" tacos from Chile Seared Tuna ($12) to Orange Marinated Pork ($7), and a multitude of house specialties. True excellence is apparent in smoky grilled meats and some sauces, particularly the hot/sweet house made salsa, which magically re-appeared as soon as our little white bowl became empty, the full-flavored Carne Asada "Tampiquena" ($16) and the Adobe Marinated Pork Tenderloin ($15) served with a fat triangle of grilled fresh pineapple. A playful sense of detail was apparent in all the presentations, but there were hints of needed improvement in some preparations, such as the thin, acidic tomatillo sauce served with the pork and the mole, which harbored an unappealing burnt chocolate aftertaste.

These two mild sauce offenses were readily excused with just one bite of a bubbling bath of brazen, ooey- gooey goodness of Mexican cheeses in the the Queso Fundido ($6). A platter of sinful decadence, it was laced with peppery-sweet strands of roasted poblano peppers and sweet, caramelized onions and served with a packet of oven-warm tortillas for scooping. This alone will bring me back, time and time again. Then, too, there is the inherent knowledge that whatever restaurant card Parco plays, it will be backed with his proven knack for carving restaurant niches in untapped markets and staffing them with energetic, talented food pros, like Ulak and Co. "One More" will almost certainly prove to be a long-term winner.

Uno Mas
880 Allbritton Boulevard, Mount Pleasant
(843) 856-4868
Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.
Dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5 - 10 p.m.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tips on Side-Stepping Tourist Traps

Nobody wants to eat bad food for which they're paying good money. That's especially true when they've already gone to the trouble and expense of traveling to an unfamiliar destination. Despite the plethora of information available online, in books and in the media, it's still tricky culling through the choices, ranging from ordinary to out-of-this world restaurant experiences, whether you crave a memorable hoagie or an elegant, delicious dinner. That's because everyone (especially those that are failing to attract a regular local customer base) wants your business, and they'll jump through all kinds of hoops (some more honestly than others) to get it. This is true pretty much everywhere, but in a tourist-driven economy such as Charleston's, which greets nearly half a million tourists every year, it's a striking reality.

Here are a few things to look out for and some advice on where to look:

1) Be Wary of Excessive, Seemingly Everywhere Advertising

I'm all for advertising and truly respect its crucial role in educating and informing consumers and marketing goods and services. I sold it successfully for years largely because I believe in its viability as a source of information and revenue. But, unlike editorial from reliable sources, it has an inherent bias. Nobody is going to come right out and tell you their product is bad. Thus, most advertising states or implies that their product and service is good and/or something you need or want, and hopefully give you credible reasons why this is so.

But, in the case of a restaurant, excessive, persistent and multi-media advertising really gives me reason to pause and think. Unless a restaurant is new or has something newsworthy to communicate (such as a new chef, menu or location) why do they need to clobber you over the head with repeated advertisements about why they're so good or #1 by some unquoted or dubious source?

No matter where I am, I'm leery of restaurants that advertise heavily in multiple venues, particularly my personal mother of red flags - billboards on highways leading from the airport into downtown. Afterall, in this case, it's unlikely that most restaurants would spend money on a roadway sign to remind locals that drive by it every morning how good they are so the would-be diner develops a sudden craving to eat dinner there that night. They wouldn't need to if they were all that popular with local diners. Instead, they're likely trying to catch fresh tourist bait for their next clientele meal.

Most restaurants (with the exception of national chains) can't afford a hefty brand or image budget that requires a constant and persistent stream of advertising in order to create a desired brand image like Nike (for example) can. In my experience, restaurants that relentlessly pummel with advertising are searching for tourists dollars because they don't have much local business. That can only mean one thing. You do the math.

Generally speaking, while paid advertising has a very real place at appropriate times and through multiple venues, the best advertising in the restaurant business is word-of- mouth. Good restaurants get the repeat business, again and again, whether its from locals or tourists. Bad ones do not.

2) Do Your Homework in Advance and Ask Lots of Questions Upon Arrival

We live in an information-laden society and there are credible sources and some less credible sources. Make it a point to find the former. Read restaurant reviews written by unbiased professionals with bona fide credentials. Question friends with like-minded culinary tastes that have visited the city you are visiting about what restaurants they liked and why - be specific. Buy a travel guide book or find and research one online. Just make sure that its revenue is at least partially subscription and editorial-driven, not exlusively advertising-driven. The latter can potentially invite an ugly little war between church and state that could leave you holding an emotionally and financially expensive bad meal bag.

3. Ask Locals

If you see someone walking a dog and/or a map-free person that seems to know where they're going, these are potent clues that such folk are probably from around town. Ask them where they like to eat and why. Again, be very specific. Tell them what you're looking for in food (ethnicity, etc), ambience (romantic, mellow, hip, or whatever), service (impromptu, sleepy, frank, professional, sleek, etc.) and price range (go with specifics like $10-$12 entrees, for example, not just "reasonable" OR "the sky is the limit") , and ask where you can find it. Listen for sincerity in tone and content to be sure they're telling you the truth and not just promoting their best bud's joint.

Pick your your sources carefully. If you typically dress to the nines, have a particular palate and an obsession with all things neat and clean, asking a belly-scratching slob where he likes to eat lunch probably won't yield productive results. Also, be wary of tourist guides working locales heavily trafficked by tourists. Most have the best intentions in mind, but like people in general, not all do.

3) Follow Your Nose and Your Eyes

Restaurants cooking bad food smells bad. There is one near a sports facility that I visit nearly daily that consistently emits a sickening aroma of stale grease. This is an indication that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, no matter what state you're in. Same goes for a restaurant that doesn't smell or look hygenic. If they're cutting corners and staff on keeping things tidy and clean, then goodness knows what's happening (or not happening) in the kitchen. If you look into a restaurant and it is full or nearly full (depending on the hour) of happy, smiling people eating food that looks good, that's a good sign. Never, ever be afraid to walk out of a restaurant that displeases you before you've even ordered.

4) Dare to Stray Off the Beaten Path

In many cities, suburbs and areas away from the heart of downtown are home to some of the best dining gems. They'll almost always be less expensive than downtown eateries and may be equally as good, if not better. Same goes here - ask, ask, ask - following the tips provided above, of course.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Fat Hen Something to Cluck About

Johns Island residents now have something else to be truly happy about. Super talent chef Fred Neuville recently flew "Rue's" coop to land here and set up his own establishment, deliciously named Fat Hen.

Because I have childhood-related fascination with chickens (under the right circumstances, I even do a pretty good imitation of one laying an egg) and because I love the name of the place and Neuville's food, I broke tradition and tossed my usual must-be-at-least three-months-old mandate in order to review a new establishment. So, let's consider this more of a report than a review, since Fat Hen's only been flying just under two weeks.

The news is good. Very good. Fat Hen is operating seamlessly. I've never seen a restaurant running so well on all fronts so early in the game.The service has professional pluck a' plenty (Neuville recruited some of Rue's best) and the food, which Neuville describes as "Lowcountry French", has a personality of its own. The menu and the decor recall Rue but in a manner that's infinitely more country warm and cozy than the cooled, Parisian brasserie sophistication chez Rue. It occupies the space that was Johns Island Cafe, conveniently situated a meager 10-15 minutes from the more populous environs of Seabrook, Kiawah, James Island and downtown.

The new look is smart and sturdy, peppered with chick-themed bibelots, a few stray painted chicken tracks here and there and oodles of comfortable tables and a spacious bar area. The intention here, according to the chef, is to impart the rounded, feminine and maternal comfort of a big, fat hen looking after her chicks. It's totally accomplished with the homespun fare, the down-home look and the nurturing nature of the effervescent staff. This Fat Hen is one good Mom, the kind that makes the saddest, loneliest and hungriest chick cheer up in a hurry.

The food is good enough to make you strut like a well-fed rooster, but the humble prices (entrees, $9.95 - $20.95) won't leave you crowing in pain. The delicate blush of Lowcountry brine trickled into every bite of silky oysters, beefed up with chunks of earthy ham and toothsome pearls of wild mushrooms - all perched above a pool of a rich and creamy sauce. The sauce was prepared with eggs purchased from nearby local farmer Celeste Albers, situated just miles away. The chilled corn bisque (special) practically squeaked with freshness of candy sweet corn purchased at the Montessori School just down the road. The commitment to buying local is real here, not just talked about, which is just as it should be on an island that yields the bounty of local produce.

This restaurant may be all about chickens, but its duck soars. The exquisite BBQ Roasted Duck appetizer (shards of roasted duck are lovingly tossed with a deep purple pomegranate sauce and served over pepper-spiked grits) is absolutely not to be missed. The same can be said of the Seared Duck Confit and its salty slivers of duck cooked long and low in duck fat, seared and served with butter beans that give new meaning to the word heavenly.

Already packing a full-house, Fat Hen is well beyond scratching and pecking her way to resounding restaurant success. She's quickly nestled adeptly over its nest.

Fat Hen
3140 Maybank Highway, Johns Island
(843) 559-9090

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Musical Chef Chairs

Chefs around town are shifting their toques faster than the Charleston tides.

While some - like Ryan Herrman (formerly at Fish and is now executive chef at The Boathouse on East Bay), Nico Romo (a Frenchman who totes a hefty resume from impressive digs like The Ritz Carlton in Atlanta and is now executive chef at Fish) and Jeremiah Bacon (a Charleston native with experience at famed kitchens like Le Bernardin and Per Se and now executive chef at Carolina's) - are setting up shop in long-standing restaurants, others have ventured out from under the safety of corporate umbrellas to start their own businesses.

The latter category includes Fred Neuville with a brand new restaurant baby named Fat Hen after a seven year-long stint at 39 Rue de Jean and later the Holy City Hospitality group and Jason Ulak's split from The Boathouse on East Bay to help start up Uno Mas, a Mexican restaurant in Mount Pleasant.

It's all enough to make your head spin and is, in some cases, borderline incestuous. Why so much movement in these lazy, hazy dog days of summer? Fred Neuville decided to make the move when the time was right and after having numerous discussions about it with his wife. "It was the right opportunity at the right time. I've built two restaurant groups for other people, and I felt that I was ready to do it for myself. Besides, I was dying to get over here (Johns Island) because there is so much opportunity," says Neuville, of the restaurant's location - just 9.5 miles from downtown. The restaurant serves "French Lowcountry" dishes like Duck Confit with Butter Beans and Garlic Spinach and makes multiple nods to Charleston's French Hugeunot culinary traditions in the menu Neuville created from scratch.

Since both restaurants are so new (Fat Hen is just 11 days old as of today and Uno Mas is just a few months old), I'll let them settle down before I check them out, but the new chefs at the established restaurants have already staked some impressive culinary strongholds. Most notably is Bacon's trimming the fat from Carolina's once (in places) cluttered and muddled dishes. Where there were once too many ingredients, now there are just enough. Carolina's recent fresh-produce initiative, supplied by owner Richard Stoney's family's plantation gardens, was poppin'-fresh-apparent in everything I sampled. Old school Carolina's fans will be happy to know that Bacon's left the Shrimp and Crabmeat wontons and Perdita's Fruits de Mer untouched. Carolina's has never been finer, indeed.

Meanwhile, over at The Boathouse on East Bay (also owned by Stoney), Ryan Herrman is on a similar path after taking over the helm here two months ago. His goal is to be "for real" local produce/fish and "for real" sustainable seafood and to continue to make subtle changes in the menu. Not surprisingly, with Romo's French roots, the new, streamlined menu at Fish features a good amount of classic technique and Asian twists on multiple dishes such as Shrimp Grits with a Miso Broth and Kona Kapachi with Parsnip Puree, Kumquat and Mustard Miso Sauce.

Featured restaurants:

442 King Street, downtown
(843) 937-0406

Una Mas
880 Allbrighton Boulevard, Mt. Pleasant
(843) 856-4868

Fat Hen
3140 Maybank Highway, Johns Island
(843) 559-9090

The Boathouse on East Bay
549 East Bay Street, downtown
(843) 577-7171

10 Exchange Street, downtown
(843) 724-3800

Monday, July 9, 2007

Off The Menu

With so many wonderful printed menu offerings scattered about greater Charleston like edible pixie dust, it's especially satisfying to come across those that come to be known not from any menu, but from pure happenstance or word of mouth. These dishes are all the more indulgent not just because of their clandestine circumstance, but also because their specialized nature ensures a meal employing the freshest goods, extra special attention to detail, and perhaps an extra dose of love from the chef that chooses to whip it together upon a slightly hushed request. It's something like having a secret lover but not nearly as dangerous and equally (if not more) delicious.

I came upon two such delights in the best possible way; completely by surprise. The first was at the always fabulous Basil. A colleague suggested I try the off-menu pho, a pungent Vietnamese noodle soup with name origins that are believed to go back to the French "pot au feu". He'd known about it for a while, but it was new to me. True to form, like everything here, it was impeccable. The smooth and silky broth was gingerly perfumed with ginger and a kiss of lime and it was served so hot it practically boiled in palate-pleasing delight. Basil's pho can be prepared with shrimp, beef or pork and is laced with seductive rice noodles and flavor. It's not on the menu, but it can be ordered for lunch or dinner service upon request.

I am less surprised that Sienna's chef/owner Ken Vedrinski, ever the veteran producer of hand-tailored menus both here and previously at Woodland's , would jump at the chance to put together an off-menu tomato salad. Whoever said (including me) that nothing beats a tomato sandwich on white bread with a smear of mayo in the South's prime tomato season, was wrong. Vedrinski's off-menu creation of Owl's Nest heirloom tomatoes was breathtaking in its simplicity. Hearty wedges of heirloom globes in hues of red, yellow, purple and green burst to life with a drizzle of the finest EVO and a subtle grappa vinegar. The literal and figurative summer-perfect topper was a quenelle of cool and delicate gorgonzola gelato that oozed lovingly into the crevices of the juicy tomatoes. It was an excellent companion to Sienna's many revolving pasta dishes, all made with succulent house prepared pasta and Vedrinski's special flare for converting his grandmother's recipes and passion for Italian cooking into an unparalleled treat for the senses. And that's no secret!

460 King Street, downtown
(843) 724-3490

901 Island Park Drive, Daniel Island
(843) 881-8820

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bits and Bites from Here and There

Little notes from the Charleston foodie front...

In part to assuage my curiosity about what's new in town and in part to research restaurants and news for this blog and a pending book, I've been staying busy checking out new stuff and re-visiting the old. The bad news is that the really new stuff (less than 3 months old) I've visited has been so disappointing I am hesitant to write about it. I figure these guys need a little time to get in full gear, but be advised, the pickings I've come across are scarily slim. If you have any tips, I welcome them. Drop me a line, please.

Meantime, a recent luncheon foray into Brent's (40 Broad Street, downtown, 853-8081) proved that this Broad Street business lunch hour haunt is, almost predictably, as good as ever. It's incredible how fast the small production line rife with cafeteria mainstays like meatloaf and cheeseburgers churns out the yummy goods. The prices are sweet (all lurk around $5) and will buy you some of the highest 19th century ceilings, biggest Broad Street arch-windowed views in town along with a recently re-vamped garden area complete with a gurgling fountain and comfortable cafe tables. Bravo!

I have to admit that I previously held a snobbish resistance to J. Paul'z (1739 Maybank Hwy., Suite V, James Island, 795-6995) and its tapas, sushi and libations merger, writing it off as a likely pick-up destination for sodden locals with the equally likely potential for mediocre food. I was utterly wrong and I'll be the first to admit it. Though not earth-shattering, the attractive decor and solid tapas ($3-$11) come together with pleasing effect that is particularly well suited to a pre or post movie bite at nearby Terrace Theater. Strong suits include buttery, round flavored short ribs layered with braised flavors and an equally fine hanger steak. The staff was young and sophomoric but sweet. I had one of my biggest inner-laughs in years when our waitress started flailing frantically at an insect near our patio table, squealing, "Oh my God, it's a bug".

Definitely Worth Checking Out: Avondale Wine and Cheese (813B Savannah Highway, West Ashley, 769-5444). Owner Manoli Davani has stocked the place with astounding cheeses from all over the globe which she happily cuts and wraps to order, throwing in a pleasant smile and a cache of information about the cheeses' origins, flavor and appropriate wine pairings. $5 wine and cheese tastings are held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5 p.m.-7 p.m.

Under the Campari Sun

Al Di La
25 Magnolia Road
West Ashley

Bacaro mania and insanely delicious food keep pumping out of this pristinely-cut Northern Italian jewel nestled off a side street in Avondale's increasinglyBohemian digs. Owner John Marshall raised the bar not only on Charleston area Italian standards but also trend-setting when he set up cuisine camp in his tiny kitchen here when the neighborhood was home to little else except sleepy, little traveled boutiques and a couple of old school restaurants (the now defunct Liberty Cafe and the ever-popular Gene's).

Six years later, Al Di La continues to evolve with the relatively recent addition of a "bacaro" wine bar that runs parallel to the main dining room and delivers sublime Italian small plates. It brings with it a bastion of wood-oven smoked pizza pies, purely Meditteranean olives, terrines, fragrant cheeses and paired wines along with a refreshing youthful energy and happening-now attitude. Marshall has also extended the confines of the delightfully intimate but mildly cramped dining room to a spacious courtyard dotted with passion red symbols of Italian's preferred aperitif - Campari umbrellas.

Beyond that, little else has changed (not counting a minor across-the-board price increase - entrees now range from a still modest $15-$16.75), save the incredible fact that the food is better than ever - that is to say in keeping with the theme of the celestially inspired restaurant name, heavenly. Lovingly braised cipollini onions, kissed with a touch of balsamic and brimming with round, sweet flavor greeted us upon arrival and followed us home in an extra take-away box, just because.

The restaurant's pillowy, hand-made gnocchi are studded with fresh, chunky bites of shrimp in every sinful spoonful of Marshall's deliciousy restrained tomato sauce. The fettucini bolognese and strangozzi spoletina, in all of their creamy and expertly executed perfection, are fully capable of bringing the dead back to life. While they're at it, these lucky souls and whoever else finds themselves blessed enough to be seated in Al Di La's increasingly crowded (reservations are now a must!) embrace, needs to cap things off with the rich, milky cafe au lait and light-as-air tiramisu. To do otherwise, would be a virtual sin in this heavenly, purely Italian retreat.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Paris Wrapped

Charleston Crepe Company
(843) 573-3458

The heady years I spent living in Paris afforded daily gifts of joy; long strolls along the Seine on haunting slate-gray days, awestruck wonder at the sprawling spires and glaring gargoyles of Notre Dame, and on and on and on. Those are just some examples. There is a pool of millions; of these, at least thousands involved food.

When guests or family visited, we splurged by supping at Paris' most noteworthy eateries, but most of the time, my constantly curious culinary life was relegated to the much humbler fare of a regular Parisian Joe, if there really is such a thing. I was a loyal client of bistros, corner cafes, and the most fabulous French invention of all, a crepe hot off the grill at one of the Paris' ubiquitous crepe vending stands. For just $3, I was swept away into the gooey, yummy world of melting swiss cheese and salty ham on a savory day or the indulgence of Nutella on a sweet one.

Well, except for occasional visits to lovely Paris, those days are gone, but the memory of the silken, bubbly, browned crepes and their assorted fillings remain, along with a constant craving for them and the Parisian senses they recall with almost cruel abandon. When it strikes, I fulfill it in an 100% authentically Parisian way at the Charleston Crepe Company's crepe stand at the Charleston Farmers Market (Saturdays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. on Marion Square). There you can find husband and wife team Jack & Rachel Byrne and their young staff griddling their way through the inevitable and nearly constant frenzy of activity at their booth - especially around lunch time.

Any wait, even the occasional 20-minute one, is well worth it. Their honey ham and Swiss cheese crepe, slathered with a generous layer of plucky Dijon mustard, is as good as any you can find in Paris. The crepe itself, no matter what the filling, is always tender and moist, due in part to the French griddles the team employs to craft their tasty wares. Recently, I broke from tradition and sampled Charleston Crepe's Southwestern crepe-take - the Chicken, Black Bean, Corn, and Salsa Crepe. Though less traditional, it was an earthy wonder of pulled chicken, crunchy fresh corn and more.

Take my advice - put in your name and get in line for one of Charleston Crepe's many crepe creations, including the incredibly French Nutella confection concoction. You won't regret it. Their crepes are simply Paris "wrapped" and taste just as delicious gobbled down in a cozy corner of Charleston as they do in the City of Lights. The bustling crepe stand also sets up on Tuesday afternoons at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market in front of Moultrie Middle School and caters at many functions and parties around town.

Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site ( , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.